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Towards the end of July 2001, Michaela Bowles wrote to the NFU hierarchy about their opposition to vaccination and received this "standard" reply from Ben Gill, President of the National Farmers Union of England and Wales. It is a comprehensive defence of the NFU's position. See her excellent rebuttal published below his letter.


Thank you for your recent enquiry. The current NFU position is detailed below.

The NFU has firmly supported the Government's strategy for tackling FMD; that is the slaughter of confirmed cases within 24 hours and the slaughter of vulnerable animals on neighbouring farms within 48 hours. This is a tough but correct approach. And the clear evidence is that this strategy is effective.

The number of confirmed cases is falling and only last week the Government Chief Scientist was expressing optimism, albeit cautious. Government data show that the number of confirmed cases is in fact below the predicted curve of the epidemic if the "24/48 hour" target is met.

In recent days, there have been signs that some in Government favour a shift in strategy by carrying out a limited programme of vaccination of cattle in parts of Cumbria and Devon, alongside a continuing slaughter programme.

Over the last few days we have had intensive discussions with Governments scientists and officials on this issue, along with vets from the British Cattle Veterinary Association. These discussions have been friendly and useful. There has not been a "confrontation" between the NFU and the Government. Both sides have sought to grapple with the very complex issues and there has been a genuine desire on both sides to find the answers to a lot of very important and difficult questions.

My strong impression, following these meetings, is that there remain too many uncertainties for the Government to be able to announce a change in strategy. We will continue our dialogue over the coming days and weeks.

Vaccination has not been ruled out, and it is right that it should be retained as a possible option for the future. In the short term, however, there are many things which farmers and the government can do together to make the current fight against the disease more effective.

You will be aware that we have posed over 50 questions (available on NFUnet or from Regional Offices) to them to seek to establish the short and long term veterinary and economic implications of vaccination as well as the merits of other biosecurity measures. In essence, these reduce to four fundamental questions:
1. What impact would vaccination have on the duration of the epidemic?
2. Would more or fewer animals be slaughtered if vaccination were carried out, compared to the existing "24/48 hour" strategy alone?
3. What would be the practical, economic and commercial consequences of vaccination for the livestock industry?
4. What additional precautionary measures and husbandry practices might impact favourably on the epidemic?

As I have said, we have not received full or unequivocal answers to these questions.

I must emphasise that Government scientists have not presented their vaccination proposals as a disease control measure. Its purpose is to free up resources (particularly in disposal terms) and to reduce slaughter rates, in the short term.

There is conflicting veterinary advice as to the risk that vaccinated cattle pose as potential "carriers" of the disease and, hence, the extent to which vaccination itself could both prolong the disease and require further slaughtering. Only this week, Government scientists stated that, after vaccination, animals are unlikely to develop FMD unless already infected at the time of vaccination. Yet, if exposed to the virus, they warn that up to half of the animals may carry the virus, without becoming infectious or showing clinical symptoms of the disease. A proportion of these animals may become infective.

Nor have we received convincing assurances that vaccination will not have serious adverse long-term commercial and economic consequences for the livestock industry. Vaccination would directly affect the marketing and trading of animals, meat, meat products and milk both within the UK, within the EU and internationally. Yet it remains quite unclear as to how wide such restrictions would be and how long they would be in place.

The Government is confident - in my view without a sufficiently strong basis- that within the UK the big food retailers will readily source and market meat and milk from areas where vaccination has taken place. I do not share this confidence. Indeed, the President of the Food and Drink Federation has expressed serious reservations about the commercial impact of vaccination. There is a risk that our own retailers would not source from vaccination areas. In addition, consumer organisations have expressed concerns, prompting our worries that consumers would avoid such products.

A two-tier food market would develop, leaving farmers in vaccinated areas commercially blighted.

The outlook for international trade is equally uncertain. But given that exports of beef are very small (due to BSE), this is not our primary concern, as many people allege. In fact, there are more serious concerns closer to home; for example, will other farmers be willing to buy calves, stores or breeding animals which have been vaccinated?

In these circumstances, the NFU simply cannot take a "leap into the dark" by agreeing to vaccination without a much clearer understanding of the outcome and consequences of such a momentous step. I understand that this view is shared by the veterinary bodies.

One of the reasons the Government has given for looking at vaccination is that there could be a temporary upturn in the number of cases as cattle are put out to pasture. It should be recognised that this has always been factored in to the predictions of the progress of the disease, and there are different views about how significant this matter is. Nonetheless, it is a genuine concern and one of the positive features of the recent meetings with scientists is that we have been able to explore alternative strategies for minimising this risk.

Surveillance, risk assessment and improved biosecurity are all key features and I have urged the Government to issue detailed advice on these as soon as possible.

I cannot understate the importance of following this advice, if we are to eliminate the disease.

Some have unfairly and ignorantly accused the NFU of misleading farmers about vaccination. We have never misled our members. Throughout, we have sought to establish the facts and rationale of both the existing strategy and of alternative approaches, including vaccination. Many other farming organisations and vets share our deep reservations, but because of our profile it is sometimes assumed that the NFU is speaking alone.

The NFU has not taken a doctrinaire position on vaccination. We are open to informed opinion, clear veterinary advice and genuine commercial assurances about the impact of vaccination on the epidemic and the commercial consequences for our industry.

To those who accuse the NFU of being unrepresentative of all farmers, I acknowledge that there are differences of view amongst farmers. But do not assume, for example, that all organic farmers favour vaccination. This is far from true. Many in the Soil Association do not share the views of the Association's leadership, while Organic Farmers and Growers Ltd and the Scottish Organic Producers Association is positively opposed to vaccination.

In short, vaccination is a difficult and complex issue and it is bound to lead to differences of opinion.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is essential to emphasise that the NFU has not taken the position it has on vaccination because it is indifferent to the mass slaughter of animals. The reverse is the case: one of the reasons why we have been unconvinced by the argument for vaccination is our fear that in the long run vaccination might mean more animals being slaughtered than the under the present policy.

It is sometimes presented that vaccination means an end to slaughter. This is not so. It must be stressed that:
* The government is only looking at vaccinating cattle (not sheep or pigs) in Cumbria and Devon. In all areas the current slaughter and contiguous cull policy around infected premises would continue;
* Even in the vaccinated areas, there will still be FMD cases in cattle and, depending on the circumstances, this will mean slaughtering the infected animal or the entire herd;
* It is by no means certain that the EU Regulation which permits vaccination in the UK allows the vaccinated animals to live, as the government has claimed. The text is ambiguous. In Holland, vaccinated animals are being systematically slaughtered.

The point of a slaughter policy involving a contiguous cull is to save lives. If allowed to spread, the disease would affect vast numbers of livestock in the UK.

Ben N Gill


Now for the excellent reply from Michaela Bowles:
24 July 2001

Attention Mr Ben Gill

Thank you for your reply. Unfortunately, it is clearly a form letter that continues to regurgitate the standard response of the NFU regarding the slaughter policy.

In terms of the slaughter policy being the 'correct' approach, that is very pedantic vocabulary and the suggestion that the NFU adopted a stamping out policy instead of vaccination in order to reduce the number slaughtered is perverse.

The policy harks back to the beginning of the last century. It is surely incumbent upon the NFU, not only in its own interests, but for the country as a whole to recognise that veterinary medicine has advanced greatly in the past 100 years.

As someone who comes from a country where the disease is endemic and who has personally witnessed the successful vaccination of thousands of cattle, the arguments presented against vaccination are spurious. For every 'scientist' who suggests that vaccination is inappropriate, you could readily find, if you choose to do so, a dozen who would endorse it. These scientists include this countries FMDV experts as well as human virologists, immunologists, animal scientists (self), veterinarians, and that is without looking outside the country to specialists in countries where the disease is endemic and where their export of meat and meat products is substantially greater than the UK's.

The UK was responsible for driving the stamping out policy in the first instance as part of a protectionist marketing ploy. As the third richest country in the world, it does not seem unfeasible that the UK should again direct policy for change. An animal virologist I spoke to in South Africa in early March, stated that FMD is a 'political disease' and the consequences being slaughter, is what makes it the most feared disease of animals, and not the clinical symptoms and contagious nature.

Vaccination in the near future is inevitable, (as early as next year it is suggested that FMD vaccination will become routine), as a result of countries such as Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria expecting to join the EU.

In terms of the questions regarding vaccination that you posed:

1. What impact would vaccination have on the duration of the epidemic?
The disease could be stopped dead with a week of vaccinating any animal. How long it takes to get round to vaccinating all those at risk is dependent upon the resources that are allocated to the situation.

2. Would more or fewer animals be slaughtered if vaccination were carried out, compared to the existing "24/48 hour" strategy alone?
Not one additional animal would need to be slaughtered other than on welfare grounds or vaccination failure. There is no requirement within EU law for the slaughter of vaccinated animals.

3. What would be the practical, economic and commercial consequences of vaccination for the livestock industry?
The Government together with the various unions, farmers and import and export agencies determine consequences for the livestock industry. Vaccination does not necessarily mean routine regular vaccination of all livestock, merely a more humane, and economic method of control, dampening down and elimination of the virus.

4. What additional precautionary measures and husbandry practices might impact favourably on the epidemic?
Irrelevant to the immediate situation. When it is brought under control, that is the time to be considering future restructuring of farming, transporting, markets, feed management, but if I could make a few suggestions:
1. Animals should be slaughtered as close as possible to their originating farm, i.e. increase the availability of smaller local abattoirs.

2 Cattle and sheep should have separate livestock markets and transport facilities.

3. Adopt Swedish policy, which is to eat a home produced product at the appropriate price rather than to import inferior food at a cheaper price. The majority of the UK population eat too much of the wrong foods and education into appropriate eating habits need to be implemented.

4. Supermarkets are the determinators of the price paid to the farmers for their product and who import a cheap product in order to maximise their profit margins. Government together with the Unions need to ensure that this practise is discontinued.

5. Breed animals for disease resistance and not merely their traits for rapid growth, early maturing, milk yield and prolific breeding.

Vaccinated cattle can pose no risk as carriers except as a result of individual failure of the vaccine in the animal, failure of the vaccine itself (highly unlikely) or failure due to inappropriate administration of the vaccine. There is no statistical evidence of recovered animals or vaccinates infecting other livestock. Even within laboratory conditions, it has proved very difficult to infect neighbouring livestock, to the extent that fluid from vesicles was injected into an animal before disease was produced.

Regarding the concern that cattle incubating the virus before clinical signs are seen might become carriers:
A method to eliminate this risk would be to test for virus before administering vaccination to animals that are suspect.

For virus to survive in a population, there is a requirement for in excess of 20% to harbour the virus. In sheep the mechanism of infection appears to be in 'waves' with approximately 5 day incubatory periods between in contact animals. Within a flock it is unlikely that at any one time 20% or more of the flock would be infectious.

Vaccinated meat from other countries is apparently fine according to Meat and Livestock Commission figures. Last year the UK imported 67,500 tons of beef and beef products from countries that vaccinate.

In the Dutch outbreak, milk from vaccinated animals went into the food chain. Supermarkets have indicated that they have no problem with the marketing of vaccinated meat, (after all they are selling it already), and see no reason to indicate that it is such. The consumer has no problem buying vaccinated meat. They are already eating it by the ton and thankfully the government have been absolutely honest in describing it as safe for human consumption.

In a recent meeting at Buith Wells with farmers and a representative from Tesco Supermarket, it was stated that there would be no resistance to selling vaccinated meat if the government provided assurances. This in fact the government has already done (see above).

FMDV vaccination, only provides protection for a limited time, roughly 6 months. If continued protection is considered necessary than regular boosters are required. To suggest that calves or breeding stock would not be acceptable for export is ridiculous. By the time that the UK fulfils the criteria for export i.e. 3 months after the last case has been slaughtered out; or 1 year after the last vaccinate is slaughtered; or 2 years after vaccination but not followed by slaughter; and then obtains the EU's agreement to resume export, the antibodies in the animals will have dissipated.

Any resistance to vaccination from within the various organic organisations, you must be aware, spring from an aversion to vaccination generally and not necessarily FMD specifically. There is growing evidence amongst our human and animal populations, that there is unnecessary routine vaccination for a number of diseases that may be giving rise to problems of allergy and decreased overall disease resistance. A radical thought I know, which takes intelligence and a change of mind set, is to allow the disease to run its course.

This is not the frightful disease that you have portrayed on radio and television. In general, the most serious sequels to the viral infection are secondary bacterial infections. These are simply treated with antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, analgesics and a convalescent diet. The consequence for the animal population, would be increased livelong immunity.

While productivity, particularly of milk yield is initially reduced, usually by the second lactation the yield is normal for the animal.

Animals were slaughtered in Holland, because Holland perceived that the method would enable them to resume their export trade sooner, but Holland was able to "contain" the disease and had they been in the UK position, with outbreaks in all areas of the country with the logistical problems of slaughter and disposal that are being experienced here, they most surely would have chosen otherwise.

I suggest to you, that if the UK were to decide to vaccinate or allow the disease to run its course, the rest of the world would heave a collective sigh of relief and put down this burden of attempting to keep a non life threatening virus out of their livestock.

Finally, it is really quite silly to suggest that virus can be contained solely by improved bio-security on farms, between farms and during transport of milk or livestock. In laboratories viruses are handled under very secure conditions because of their ability to pass through filters, to survive in the environment for variable time spans, to waft about in the air.

Yours faithfully
Michaela Bowles

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